Pull Out Those Pantsed Weeds in Your WIP

I’m now a Plantser (someone between a Plotter and Pantser), but for MUST LOVE BREECHES I pantsed it all the way, baby! (Pantser refers to someone who writes by the seat of their pants with no pre-plotting). Anyway, that means there’s LOTS more work on the revision side (one of the reasons I tried pre-plotting STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY).

Today I want to focus on those little seeds you plant while you’re pantsing, because sometimes they surprise you and grow into wonderful expressions of theme, or subtext, or great twists in plot. But then there are those seeds you plant, with the same kind of hopefulness, that just… well, sprout up as distracting weeds, hiding your characterization, plot, theme and more.

The problem comes in the early stages of revisions in that some of those weeds don’t look like weeds yet. Just like real weeds where you hover over the unidentified green sprout, pondering if you should yank it out–what if it’s a …? You do the same when reading and rereading your WIP. Some you even cultivate, realizing their potential and you’re quite pleased with your subconscious. Some you tweak a little and even beef it up, hoping it will work.

But the old adage is so true: setting your WIP aside is essential to discovering what really needs to stay. I hadn’t read MLB through since probably May? I’d stopped my querying and sent it out for another round of Beta reading and over the summer I’ve made some revisions. I’m now rereading for revision smudge (thank you Janice Hardy for that apt phrase) and also just trimming and analyzing everything as to whether it needs to be there.

And boy has that break helped me see things that needed yanking! I thought I’d share one such section I came across this week to serve as an illustration of what I mean by a pantsed seed that grew into a weed.

I had a reflective/passage of time scene early on where the heroine wakes in a panic because she can’t remember who the President of the US would be in 1834 (she’s traveled back in time) and she might be expected to know it. So she methodically gets out pen and paper and works forward from Jefferson and backward from Lincoln and works it out, but it gave her a little scare. Anyway, it was something that obviously sprang to mind as something that one might panic about and so I wrote it into my first draft (seed). Maybe someone discovers her list! And she’s having to explain how she knows of future events! None of that ended up happening when the first draft was completed. On revisions, I liked how it revealed a bit about her situation and her methodical side, but I recognized that it needed to have more relevance and so had it come back in a later scene where Mrs. Somerville (who is sheltering her) is confronting her about something else and the heroine sees it’s visible and it ups the tension in the scene. Will Mrs. S see it?

Well, no, she doesn’t. And in this last pass, having let my manuscript lie fallow for several months, I had the distance to see this little element for what it is–a weed. Yank! Nothing ever comes of that list and that extra bit I added in revision to justify the existence of the initial seed was false tension since nothing happens. It cluttered up two scenes and added about 300 words to my MS. That might not seem like a lot, but anything that doesn’t serve the purpose of your story only adds clutter. And readers don’t want clutter.

I think the moral is: yes, it really DOES pay to let your manuscript sit, the longer the better, even though you really, really, really want to send your baby out into the world. Resist. There could be weeds lurking in it.

What do you think? Have you experienced something similar during revision? How did you recognize it for what it is?

Want your theme? Your subconscious will eventually grab you by your short and curlies

To her surprise,  Bella finds the foot she'd misplaced two years ago. I’m knee-deep in my fourth draft when lo and behold, out pops my theme. It was freaking amazing how it felt, too, so I scribbled it down and realized that I already had so many elements in place it was a wonder I hadn’t gotten whiplash from it hitting me in the face before.

Are you a pantser like me still struggling with finding your theme during revision? I’ll share what I did that made it so glaringly obvious.

Lots of craft books on theme always say not to force it, that it will just come to you, and after a year and three drafts when it hadn’t, I had started reading that advice and saying, “Yeah, right. Pfft.” Finally, I settled for something like “love conquers time,” but it just didn’t ring my bells.

Meanwhile, I’ve been entering some RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) Chapter contests (three to date) and one of them required a synopsis. Gasp! I knew I had to do one of these dreaded things eventually so I sat down and read up on best practices, did some brainstorming exercises to help boil the plot down to its essentials and hammered one out, sat on it, researched some more, revised it, brainstormed, posted it for review, etc.

It was during one of those moments when I was looking at the macro structure of my story that I realized my theme. And then I made bullet points of every single way that theme was a part of my story already, and I was bowled over. I swear, it was like I’d planned it the whole time! The craft books were right!

One of the craft books I’m working with right now is Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff and among other tips, she’d advised making a list of thematic words that will convey what the story is about so that you can start assembling a visual library in your mind as well as vocabulary you want to incorporate. So I did that and went back to my revisions and it really helped tighten my first chapter. Who knows if anyone will really get that I chose the visuals and setting specifically as subtext for my theme, but it’s now there and it feels great. It will also help me make final decisions on some backstory and as well as see that certain paragraphs aren’t really necessary – they’re now just clutter. I’m also keeping the theme and my word list handy as I work through my fourth draft to see if there are ways for me to strengthen my scenes and prose.

It’s also helped me to strengthen my logline/pitch, and when I get closer to the query stage, I’ll be sure to have it in there.

One thing I want to make certain I don’t do, is hit the reader over the head with it though. I feel it should be something that’s just lying there under the surface, helping to buoy them along as they read.

How about you? Plotters, is this another instance where you’re shaking your head at us poor pantsers? Pantsers, have you also struggled with your theme and how did it come to you? How do you ensure you haven’t been too obvious with it? Readers, do you like trying to find the theme?